Working full time and having just given birth to her second son, Sarah Lakeman began to realize just how stressful and unsustainable her lifestyle had become. She feared that if she didn't try to make more time available for her family and community—and live true to her values—she would be filled with regret. With her husband also working a demanding job of 70-plus hours a week, it became clear to her that something needed to change.
Sarah decided to look for a part-time job so that she could free up more time for her family. Fortunately, she was able to cut back her existing work—as Sustainable Maine Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine—to three days a week, working mostly from home. New Dream caught up with her in the weeks just after she made the transition.
What does “the good life” mean to you?
It’s a life that is rich in health, love, laughter, belonging, and purpose. In other words, I strive to make sure that my day-to-day activities contribute to my physical and mental health, relationships with family and friends, happiness, and sense of community, and that I’m putting my skills and interests to work for the greater good.
I’ve learned that it’s easy to say, and believe, that you subscribe to this definition of the good life (I mean, it says "live, laugh, love" right there on my coffee mug), but it’s a more difficult thing to live it. Difficult only because it involves heightened self-awareness and actual lifestyle changes that aren’t necessarily supported by our economic and cultural norms. You have to question yourself, and be deliberate in making choices that support what really matters to you.
Creating a fresh perspective and new habits can be hard, but if it improves your life then it’s well worth the effort. My take is that you’ve only got one life, so you’ve gotta do it right.
And how did you come to this vision?
I’ve always thought the meaning of life had something to do with love. I've always had the “work to live, not live to work” mentality, and have taken seriously the idea of “leaving the world a better place than you found it." But it wasn't until recently that I came to recognize that my values weren’t necessarily reflected in my lifestyle choices.
Sure, I did my best to live up to my ideals, but it felt as if I didn’t make enough time to focus on my health, relationships, and life’s simple pleasures. My little family of four had entered the “rat race,” and it seemed as if our life had gotten a bit out of our control. I didn’t know how to slow down anymore, and I even felt a bit panicky if I found myself with a spare moment. I also had adopted some time-saving behaviors that were enlarging my environmental footprint.
I started to do a lot of self-reflection and imagined what I would regret later in my life if I didn’t change. It became clear to me that my current life trajectory needed to be purposely re-routed, rather than sailing along without question. I now am much more deliberate in keeping health, love, laughter, belonging, and purpose top priority when making life's choices, both big and small.
I was very fortunate to have been able to make the clear but difficult choice to reduce my work hours and also work at home more, freeing up time to focus on what really matters. Ironically, cutting hours at work had the unforeseen benefit of eliminating some projects that weren’t necessarily important, and is helping me focus on the best use of time.
My decision certainly involved earning less money, and buying less stuff, which I came to realize wasn’t as important as everything else. Ultimately, I had taken a conscious step toward living a life of sufficiency, as opposed to a life of excess. The latter is what is in many ways programmed into our culture, and promoted constantly, so it's not always easy to recognize.
What’s the one thing you enjoy most about your lifestyle?
Probably my increased sense of self-awareness and clarity of purpose. Now that I’ve really taken action to make sure that I’m living true to my values, I feel empowered, and better poised to teach my boys what is most important in life. Further, I am grateful to be able to spend more time with my friends and family, particularly my children, more than I would if I continued to work long hours. Not just being physically there, but being more mentally present when I am with them. I know that if I didn’t make that change now, I would look back with regret later.
Is there anything at all about your life these days that you really wish you could change or improve?
Yes, I wish that my husband had the ability to immediately reduce his long and demanding 70-plus hour work week. And he does too. We’ve seen how long hours and chronic stress wreak havoc on a family. As a result, we have completely re-strategized our long-term goals and have a plan for both of us to be able to free up time to focus more on what matters.
But it's hard to turn an aircraft carrier on a dime, and over time we can and will turn this ship. We are careful not to take on additional debt or investments that don’t directly improve our lives, because we are more aware of what the trade-offs are.
I wish that I could help change or improve life for others, too. Trying to intentionally live with less to focus on what matters is a luxury that not many people have. I’m fully aware and grateful for my privilege. The basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare are becoming increasingly expensive and out of reach for many Americans. And without these, people don’t have time to focus on life's greatest gifts.
This is a tragic failing of our modern society. I hope that we can re-wire our economy and cultural expectations so that more people can live meaningful, happy, healthy lives. In the end, that is the only thing that really matters.
Tell us a little about the work that you do.
Interestingly enough, my personal journey to “live the dream” is aligned in many ways with my professional journey. I lead the sustainability efforts for an environmental advocacy organization, with a slant toward policy and an overarching focus to create more sustainable lifestyles and communities. So, while I strive to “put my money where my mouth is” in my personal life, my job is to urge and inspire others to do the same through policy and personal action.
I’ve maintained that recycling, composting, turning off the lights, and carpooling, while important, alone are not going to solve our environmental problems. What we really need to sustain life is a systemic change in our culture. We need that societal full swing from a life of excess to a life of sufficiency that I mentioned above. In Mahatma Gandhi's words, “Earth provides enough for every man's need, but not every man's greed."
Describe some ways in which you are involved in your community.
I’m grateful that a big part of my job is organizing community events, building coalitions, and involving the public in important policy discussions. So through my work, I feel very connected to the public, particularly the environmental community. And my family and I have our own small way of connecting with the community. Whenever we venture out into the public sphere, we always talk to people that we encounter. It feels good to be friendly, compassionate, and kind to strangers, and you never know if you may make someone’s day with quick conversation. It’s fun to watch my three-year old son follow suit.
For many, your lifestyle is considered “outside the mainstream.” Does this present any challenges, and, if so, how do you deal with them?
I think it’s more the lens through which I look at life, and my version of success, that is outside the mainstream. Success is typically assessed by how many hours you work, how much you own, or how many figures your annual salary is. And people strive to reach (or appear like they have reached) that level of success and therefore have a good life. I tend to spend time with people of a similar mindset to mine, but my decisions may be judged by the people who still subscribe to that mainstream version of success. One part of bucking the norm and staying true to yourself is not necessarily caring what other people think of you.
I also think it’s important to note that there is a difference between making wise investments and buying quality goods that improve your life, and buying things because of what it symbolizes or what it does to your perceived social status. I’m in the former camp. When I see people living in excess and eager to prove it, I’m not envious or impressed. Instead, I wonder if they are happy and what they had to give up to get all of that stuff.
Please describe any new skills or hobbies that you’re really excited about or that you would love to learn if you had the time and resources.
I enjoy making things from scratch. Not just food, but other household items and things that I would otherwise have to buy or pay someone to do for me. I’d like to learn to do more home repair on my own. And I want to learn more about food preserving so that I always have healthy food on hand, and it’s a good way to save on food costs and reduce waste. I’d like to be able to teach my boys these skills that will benefit them throughout their lives, too.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
“If something is important to you, you’ll make it a priority. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” Someone said this to me when I was complaining about how I just didn’t have enough time to exercise and take care of myself anymore. I realized that I was making excuses. I didn’t need to feel victimized by my life, because I had the power to make choices about how I spent my time. It increased my self-awareness and helped me to go against the grain to find time for what really is important. (And I DID really want to exercise more—now I do, and I feel more empowered and healthy. Case in point.)
New Dream's "Living the Dream" series profiles folks from around the world who are living lives focused on “more of what matters.” If you or someone you know is living the New Dream, please contact us—we're looking for inspiring stories to share!